Wet’suwet’en land defender Eve Saint described her arrest on her peoples’ territory at a talk in Regent Park Community Centre, hosted by the Toronto division of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) on February 20.
Saint sang the women’s warrior song as she was removed from Wet’suwet’en territory by Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers for taking part in a blockade against the Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline.
She was arrested at Gidimt’en, one of two checkpoints set up by the Wet’suwet’en people to stop the CGL pipeline from being built on their unceded lands. Though the Wet’suwet’en gave Coastal GasLink an alternative route, the company has rejected it.
After the British Columbia Supreme Court issued an injunction to clear the roads in December, the RCMP began an operation to clear the blockades and arrest protestors, which in turn sparked nation-wide solidarity protests.
“You know, your father, your ancestors have walked the territory for thousands and thousands of years, and you’re being treated like a criminal,” said Saint.
As armed RCMP officers moved around the blockade, the thought at the front of Saint’s mind was that someone was going to get shot. “My main goal was to make sure that they know that we’re unarmed, we’re peaceful,” Saint recounted of the moment that the RCMP officers closed in.
In December, The Guardian reported that the RCMP, in its plans to clear the road for the CGL pipeline, were prepared to use lethal force, and in leaked documents had proposed “[using] as much violence toward the gate as you want.” It further added that arrests would be necessary for “sterilizing [the] site.”
Based in Toronto, Saint had been visiting a sick family member when the RCMP moved to enforce the court injunction against the pipeline protestors. At that moment Saint made the decision to leave school and her life in Toronto to help her father, Hereditary Chief Woos, and others’ efforts to halt the construction of the pipeline Wet’suwet’en territory. Hereditary chiefs titles are passed down through generations — Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have authority over their unceded territory as per pre-colonial Wet’suwet’en law. While the Elected Band Councils are in favour of the pipeline, they only have jurisdiction over reserves and not the unceded territory that the pipeline would pass through. Furthermore, the band councils were created under the Indian Act, which does not predate the hereditary chiefs’ authority.
On February 7, Saint was told that the RCMP officers were on their way to her location at Gidimt’en checkpoint blockade. Saint described preparing for RCMP arrival by eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, and thinking over what she would say to them upon arrival.
Saint said that she told the RCMP during its raid of Gidimt’en, while helicopters and drones could be heard overhead, that “they are trespassing and that they have no consent.”
Despite this, the RCMP moved in, and Saint was arrested and held in custody for four days. Saint spoke of crying in custody because she wished she could have done more. However, shortly before the raid she had found out she was pregnant and made every effort to maintain the safety of her person.
Vanessa Gray from Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ontario, also spoke at the OCAP event. Along with members of Climate Justice Toronto, Gray occupied the office of the federal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett.
Gray stressed that this is not a “new issue.”
“While the rest of you have an option to do something, we have been raised in Indigenous families that have only been surviving this same issue,” said Gray, who is also a co-founder of Aamjiwnaang & Sarnia Against Pipelines.
A U of T student studying political science and Indigenous studies, Ross Johnston, attended the event. Though informed on the issues in Wet’suwet’en territory, Johnston hoped to learn from the speakers’ personal experiences.This is not the first Wet’suwet’en solidarity event for Johnston, who also attended a “big march on Family Day and a few smaller things up in Northern Ontario… [where] we got some solid support from people on the side of the road.”
Johnston said that the protests “solidified the fact that this was a growing movement and that gave [him] a lot of hope.”
At this time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for an end to the rail blockades that are held in solidarity across the country. CGL has been told by British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office that further talks are needed with the Wet’suwet’en people before construction continues. The gas company has been given 30 days to complete these consultations.